07 December 2010

Amtrak Service and Fares # 3 – Routes – Long distance trains – Western (Pacific coast to Chicago and New Orleans)

This is the second installment on Amtrak's routes, looking at trains in the West that operate eastbound from the Pacific coast to Chicago or New Orleans.  (The first chapter covered long-distance trains operating in a roughly north-to-south direction.)

Let’s move from south to north.  With one exception that I’ll identify, all trains from the west coast to points east (Chicago or New Orleans) take 3 days and 2 nights to reach their destination.  For example, if you left Seattle on a Thursday you would arrive in Chicago on Saturday.

Two trains, three if you look at it differently, begin in Los Angeles and head east to Chicago and New Orleans.  One train leaves from Emeryville (Oakland/San Francisco) bound for Chicago.  One more leaves begins in two separate sections from Portland and Seattle, but becomes one train in Spokane for its run to Chicago.

Here is a closer look.  (Remember, you can click on a link in the name header of each train that takes you to a detailed page of route information at Amtrak.com)

SOUTHWEST CHIEF (trains 3 / 4)

The Southwest Chief, the descendant of Santa Fe’s Super Chief, operates between Los Angeles and Chicago, with principal stops in Flagstaff, Albuquerque, and Kansas City.  For a good deal of the trip, this train parallels the old Route 66.  This train traverses the classic scenery of the Southwest before reaching the vast flatness of Kansas and beyond.

SUNSET LIMITED (trains 1 / 2)

The Sunset Limited runs between Los Angeles and New Orleans.  The Sunset Limited was the original name of the train operated up until Amtrak day by the Southern Pacific.  It is one of two long-distance trains in Amtrak’s system that operate only 3 times per week each direction.  (All other long-distance trains are daily.)  The big cities served along the way include Tucson, El Paso, San Antonio, and Houston.  (Phoenix is not served directly, but a stop at Maricopa, Ariz., is only 30 miles away.)

Some Amtrak passengers may remember when this train ran all of the way to Florida (first to Jacksonville, then later to Orlando).  The service to Florida was suspended after damage to tracks along the Gulf Coast as a result of Hurricane Katrina.  Though the damage was long ago repaired, the service to Florida never resumed, and as of this writing (July 2011) there is no indication at all that it ever will.

TEXAS EAGLE (trains 21 / 22 and 421 / 422 )

The third eastbound train from Los Angeles, the Texas Eagle, isn’t a train of its own when it leaves; it’s part of the Sunset Limited.  This requires a detailed explanation.

The Texas Eagle is a daily train that operates daily from San Antonio to Chicago.  Important stops include Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas, Little Rock and St. Louis.

Three days a week a sleeping car and a coach that begin their trip in Los Angeles headed eastbound on train 2 (the Sunset Limited) are uncoupled in San Antonio and then coupled to train 22 that leaves San Antonio headed to Chicago.

A passenger in a Chicago-bound sleeping car or coach does not have to change trains in San Antonio, because the car itself gets switched from one train to the other, but because of a 9 ½ hour layover in San Antonio it makes for longer overall travel time from the origination in Los Angeles to a final destination of Chicago.  (The process works in reverse for westbound travelers, with cars that begin in Chicago being uncoupled in San Antonio and coupled to westbound train 1.)  This is the one train that would produce a 4 day, 3 night overall travel time from the west coast to Chicago because of the more circuitous route and long layover.

Passengers booked eastbound on the Texas Eagle between Los Angeles (and intermediate points up to but not including San Antonio) to cities beyond San Antonio as far as Chicago are typically booked on train 422.  In reverse, they are booked on train 421.

CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR (trains 5 / 6)

The California Zephyr, heir to the name of the renowned train that did not even live to Amtrak day (discontinued  March 1969), runs between Emeryville (Oakland) and Chicago.  (San Francisco is served via a bus connection from Emeryville to San Francisco over the Bay Bridge.)  Noteworthy stops include Sacramento, Reno, Salt Lake City, Grand Junction, Denver, and Omaha.

This train is considered among the best for scenery because of the rugged crossing of the Sierras and the long stretch along the Colorado River and in the Rockies.  Unlike the original postwar California Zephyr, the train does not traverse the Feather River Canyon (except for the very rare detour) but instead runs on the former Southern Pacific Donner Pass route, which was part of first transcontinental line when completed in 1869.

EMPIRE BUILDER (trains 7 / 8 and 27 / 28)

The last of the western long-distance trains is the Empire Builder.  The name of the train was inherited from the railroad that created it, the Great Northern Railway (later part of Burlington Northern), which named the train after its founder, James Hill.  In his day Hill was dubbed the "Empire Builder".  Headed eastbound, the Empire Builder begins its journey as two trains.  Train 8 with coaches, sleeping cars, and a dining car, originates in Seattle headed north to Everett where it makes an eastward turn and crosses the Cascades bound for Spokane.

Train 28 on the other hand starts in Portland, crosses the Columbia River over to Vancouver, Wash., and then makes its eastward turn to run along the Columbia for about 200 miles to Pasco, Wash.  The Portland-originating section of the Empire Builder includes coaches, sleepers, and a lounge car.  It continues to Spokane for a midnight rendezvous with the Seattle-originating train 8.

In Spokane, the two trains are coupled together to become one train operating east to Chicago.  Westbound, it works in reverse; the train splits into two pieces in Spokane for the final legs of the trip to Seattle (train 7)  and Portland (train 27).  Portland-bound and Seattle-bound coaches and sleepers are clearly identified, so it is seldom that a passenger needs to move from one car to another in Spokane.

Between Spokane and Chicago the principal stops are Whitefish, Mont., Havre, Mont., Fargo, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee.

Like the California Zephyr, this train is highly regarded for great scenery in Oregon and Washington, Glacier Park, the vast reaches of Montana's Big Sky Country, and some pretty landscapes in Wisconsin.  By most accounts, the on-board service on the Empire Builder is presently the best among all of Amtrak’s long-distance trains.

Amtrak Service and Fares - navigational links
Backward to Routes - Long-distance trains - North to South
Forward to Routes - Long-distance trains - Eastern (Chicago to the east coast)


  1. I have fond memories of riding the Rio Grande Zephyr from Denver to Salt Lake City in 1982 when it was still a private passenger train operated by the Denver & Rio Grande Western. It was the last time I was in a dining car with heavy silver tableware, starched linens, and glassware. Unfortunately, an unseasonal snowstorm prevented a timely connection with the Pioneer and I ended up with an unplanned 24 hour stay in SLC.

  2. I'm jealous, Larry. The DRG&W Zephyr really was the last gasp of pre-Amtrak passenger trains. That must have been a great ride. Wasn't that the last year that the DRG&W operated the train?

  3. I think it surrendered to AMTRAK in 1983. It was supposed to terminate in 1982 which is why I booked the trip, but the D&RGW gave it a one year reprieve, probably to work out details with AMTRAK to move the California Zephyr onto their tracks.